Home It's All Mental Q&A Wednesday: How to Handle the Gym ‘Alpha Dog’

Q&A Wednesday: How to Handle the Gym ‘Alpha Dog’

by Erika Nicole Kendall

Q: so i know this is going to sound a little weird, but i am terrified of the gym. i mean, it scares the sh-t out of me. like, i get all siced to get up and go workout, but then i envision some a–hole in a muscle tank pointing and laughing at me as i struggle with two one pound kettlebells or whatever, and then i flip out and decide to stay on my couch in the comfort of shonda rhimes instead. i’m sure this wouldn’t please shonda, and it for damn sure ain’t pleasing me, but i can’t-CAN NOT-bring myself to set foot in a gym.

please help me make sense of all this. i want to go to the gym and be a gym bunny and be successful at this. i want to at least watch my TGIT on a treadmill in the back of a room full of other sweaty people, not on my couch!

I can’t help but wonder if you’ve been here before—if you’ve been in a situation where someone willfully tried to embarrass and shame you, to make you the butt of a joke, and it sent you into retreat mode. If it has, I’m sorry. I’m soooo sorry, on behalf of gym goers everywhere.

Public exercise is such a scary and complicated thing for so many people, and you’d think that other people—regardless of their size—would understand that. Alas, in the gym, there are good people, there are not-as-good people, and there are garbage people who seem to be begging to catch those hands. That’s not just in the gym, though. Unfortunately, that’s everywhere.

I think I’ve played every role on the spectrum—I used to go to my 24-hour gym at 10 at night, when no one else was there, so that I could avoid the stares and judgment I’d imagined in my mind would overwhelm me and scare me into not going anymore. I was terrified of working out around other people, so going late at night meant I could learn without judgment, enjoy myself without shame, dance my way from one machine to the next without stares, and make the experience fun in my own kind of way.

Then, I was an Alpha-type at the gym—a person who clearly knows what they’re doing, a person who tries hard to not hog one of the squat racks the entire time they’re there (but often does anyway—sorry) a person who isn’t ashamed to take up space. (I don’t grunt or yell, though?) I was never the person who shamed others or mocked them for being who they were or where they were on their journey—for one, I’m not that person; for two, ain’t nobody got time for that; and three, if there’s one thing blogging about weight loss for almost a decade will tell you? It’s that one person’s “fit” is another’s “fat” and people have no problem telling you which one you are to them—but I was clear about the fact that, when I stepped through those doors, it was time to handle bidness. And, to be frank, the leanness of my figure reflected that.

I’m still the Alpha-type in my gym, but I don’t “look like it” as much anymore. I’m chubby around the middle, like most post-baby moms, my hips and thighs have spread, but I’m still muscular and have strong shoulders and arms. Basically, I’m all over the place. And, I won’t lie—I still walk in the place like I intend to take up space, but I also feel the push-pull sense of pressure that implies that “taking up space” isn’t for people who look like me.

(For the record, I’ve also had long stretches without a gym membership—I lost a good 80 or so pounds without one. Don’t feel like you must engage in public exercise if you’re not ready. You can definitely make major moves from home. Alas, if you truly want to go for it, read on.)

Having been on both sides of the coin, I can tell you from personal experience that sooo much of this is in our own heads. The overwhelming majority of people haven’t been raised by wolves. They aren’t going to look at you and feel like you don’t belong, or that you should be the butt of a joke, or be crass or heartless enough to mock you to your face. I mean, no one likes the way that feels—we all lived through high school. We’ve either seen it, done it, or been a victim of it. It’s wack.

That kind of social anxiety is real, the feeling of fear is real, and the delay discounting is real. But the phenomenon that is triggering it—the fear of being mocked by a stranger—is so unlikely to happen, that I suspect you’d sooner hit a winning lottery ticket than experience this. Even though I’ve written about this before, in a way, you should note that this is two e-mails out of maybe a thousand that I’ve received over the years since I started the Q&A. Even as scared as I was in the beginning, I don’t think I’ve ever experienced this.

A lot of times, the person who looks like the “Alpha dog” in the gym is just a catch all for everything that intimidates us about the gym space: a very fit person, a person comfortable in the gym environment, a person who knows what they’re doing, a person who looks like they belong. All of those traits also get rolled up into a bundle with “a person who also will likely treat me badly because I do not look like I belong.” In other words, “Alpha dog” becomes synonymous with “bully.” But, if we were honest with ourselves, we’d admit that we sometimes pre-emptively assume people who are fit are intimidating because we believe they’re more likely to be bullies. We have to remember—the gym is a place people utilize to help them change their bodies, and many “fit-looking” people were “not-so-fit-looking” before, themselves. Even if they have that stereotypical “scorn for fat people as a formerly fat person” thing, they still understand why you’re there and leave you alone.

Regardless of your size, you have the right to take up space. You have the right to walk into any room with your head high, regardless of what the other people in the room will think.  I walked in the gym last night wearing a shirt I knew was too small, but it was laundry day and mind your business when I walk in the room with my head high with my #smedium shirt. I’m not here to style on you—I’m here to work out. I’m not here to make friends. I’m here to exercise. I’m here to sweat. I’m literally coming here to take up space, and as long as I pay my membership fee, I’m entitled to do just that… and so are you. It doesn’t matter how much space you intend to take up, or for how long—those things are secondary to the ultimate fact that you are entitled to space, and nothing anyone can say should make you feel bad about doing exactly that.

Take up space, and hold your head up high and smile as you do it. The anxiety that you feel in actually taking those steps to entering those gym doors? That’s something you’ll have to walk and talk yourself through. Repeating to yourself, “it’s just an hour,” or “it’s just the gym,” or “I’m just in and out, it’ll be nothing,”—anything to help minimize the threat of whatever it is that you fear, will help you take those next steps to get you through the door, tucked neatly into a corner of the gym on a cozy elliptical and in front of a TV where you can watch your fave.

It sucks, because stories of people being awful at the gym certainly garner lots of attention, and it often only reminds many of us of what awaits us beyond those doors. But remember, those people are outnumbered—like, 3,000 to 1. And we’re all ready to welcome you, support you and encourage you, and—most importantly—leave you the hell alone while your shows are on.

(If someone does try you, though? Read this.)

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